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1-15 February 2014

Installment #591---Visitor #AmazingCounters.com

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A few openings remain
for our March 2014
Operation RubyThroat
expedition to observe &
band hummingbirds in


We'll see & photograph lots of birds and a variety of tropical flora & fauna.

Click on image of Jabiru stork or Snowflake Lily above for trip details.

More excursions for 2014-15 (including a new one to Honduras)
will be
announced in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, the weather for Belize City, Belize:

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February is one of our favorite months for natural history. Folks often think plants and animals are all snoozing at this time of the winter, waiting for warm weather to arrive. Evidence around Hilton Pond Center is quite the contrary, however, with signs of active flora and fauna at every turn on the trail. The first half of this second month in the current year was particularly interesting and memorable--what with, among other happenings, a winter wonderland of snow, the birthday of a should-be-more-famous naturalist, and a significant milestone in the avian research we've been conducting locally for 33 years. Our illustrated chronology for the first-half-of-February 2014 is recounted below.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center
2014 photo of Punxsutawney Phil above courtesy Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press

The most important date on the annual nature calendar, of course, falls on 2 February when whistelpigs across the nation are yanked from burrows by well-meaning locals who want to know whether spring is on the way. Most famous is Punxsutawney Phil, a slightly overweight woodchuck, Marmota monax, who spends most of his life in a climate-controlled cage in the Pennsylvania Highlands. Amid media clatter and artificial lighting, groundhog weatherman Phil saw his shadow this year and forecast six more weeks of winter. Balderdash, we say. As much as we respect Phil on this highest of nature holidays, we cannot believe what he observes in the Keystone State pertains to the Carolinas, so we consult instead with Hilton Pond Harry, a White-footed Mouse who has long-served as our trusted local PPP (Piedmont Peromyscus Prognosticator).

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

At dawn on 2 February a dense fog lay across the landscape as far as we (or Harry) could see, meaning there was no way he would encounter his shadow and burrow back in. By not casting a shadow (photo above), Hilton Pond Harry predicted this brutal Carolina winter is about over and springlike weather is not far away--although as caveat Harry did confide privately we could be in for a few more chilly days and nights before the Spring Equinox in March. Our little Peromyscus leucopus would not rule out a little sleet or snow but promised there will be no more temperatures in the single digits. Punxsutawney Phil can go back to sleep if he wants, but Harry is going about his early spring business.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Another important nature-related date this month is 4 February, which this year marked the 224th anniversary of the birth of the Rev. John Bachman, a productive 19th century American naturalist who is often overlooked. An ordained clergyman from New York State, Bachman ministered by day to the sick and needy as pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Charleston SC. At night he devoted his thoughts and writings to natural history in and around the Lowcountry; his reputation was such that John James Audubon sought him out in 1831 and became a close friend and co-worker. Audubon was so appreciative of Bachman's expertise he named Bachman's Sparrow and the now-extinct Bachman's Warbler for the reverend; these two birds are commemorated with statues at Newberry College--which Bachman served as founder and first president of the board of trustees. (The College honored Bachman at an international symposium we led during its sesquicentennial in 2006.) Two of Bachman's daughters married two of Audubon's sons, and the whole family collaborated on the "Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America"--a companion set to Audubon's more famous bird volumes. Bachman wrote all the text to accompany Audubon's renderings of various live-bearing mammals . . . from tiny shrews to the now-endangered Red Wolf, Canis rufus (above), which the pastor-naturalist was first to describe in print. Coincidentally, this month also marks the 140th anniversary of Bachman's passing on 24 February 1874.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

According to Hilton Pond Center's digital weather station, February's high temperature through mid-month was a sub-tropical 71.6 degrees on the 3rd--a mark that lent credibility to Harry's "early spring" prediction. On 8 February, cloudless skies made it balmy enough even at 59.3 degrees for Painted Turtles, Chrysemys picta (above), to be sunning on branches that had fallen into the pond. (Our larger Yellowbelly Sliders won't be out until things warm up a bit more.) There's something promising and reassuring about turtles basking around Hilton Pond on a sunny day in the month of . . . February, and it doesn't hurt when you can also hear Carolina Wrens and Eastern Tufted Titmice singing at the tops of their voices.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Dark-eyed Juncos, Junco hyemalis (formerly Slate-colored Junco), have been very scarce this winter at Hilton Pond Center. Over 33 years we've averaged about two dozen juncos annually--the record was 74 caught 'way back in 1991--but so far in 2014 we've banded only ten. We trapped one on 10 February this year that was particularly unusual: A partial albino Dark-eyed Junco (above) with considerable white on its face. If you showed this avian portrait to most people they probably would have trouble identifying the species--until they took note of the pink conical bill that is characteristic of juncos. Technically this bird is a "piebald," with pure white feathers mixed among those that are normal.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Late on the morning of 11 February light snow began falling at Hilton Pond Center, sticking to cold surfaces including asphalt roads that access the property. Precipitation eventually reached a depth of about two inches by late afternoon (above), and then stopped.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

If watching birds can give us hints about weather to come, the initial sign more snow might be in the offing came when the winter's first two Purple Finches, Carpodacus purpureus, arrived at our feeders during the 11 February snow. One was an after-second-year (full adult) male with raspberry plumage (above), the other a brown bird that could have been a second-year male (hatched in 2013) or a female of any age. (Males take two full years to get their "purple" feathers.) Although PUFI are our third most-commonly banded bird at the Center, we were beginning to wonder if we'd see any at all this winter.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Shortly before 9 a.m. on 12 February, the second round of wintry weather began with light, blowing snow and 26.7 degrees. Within a few minutes the light snow turned to big, heavy flakes falling so heavily it was hard to see the pond from our office window in the old farmhouse--a snowfall that continued on and off for several hours. The photo above, taken late-morning, is the new cover image for the Center's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/HiltonPond. "Like" us if you dare!

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The winds picked up about mid-day on the 12th, driving snow against the farmhouse and birds toward the feeders. Shortly after noon we were amazed to see the number and variety of birds that had flocked to the feeding station. At just one tube feeder (above) there were four species (Northern Cardinal, American Goldfinch, House Finch, and Purple Finch), but when we looked out the windows in one-five minute block we counted an incredible 24 species of birds--certainly a record for such a short period at Hilton Pond Center and a number not likely to be exceeded by many backyards in the Carolina Piedmont, or elsewhere. Although we try to be scientifically objective in our observations, we were astounded at the tally--especially during such a short period (below, in no particular order). If you had more than two dozen species at your own feeder at one time as the snowstorm raged, please let us know at INFO.

  1. Rusty Blackbird
  2. Savannah Sparrow
  3. Chipping Sparrow
  4. White-throated Sparrow
  5. Song Sparrow
  6. White-breasted Nuthatch
  7. American Goldfinch
  8. House Finch
  9. Purple Finch
  10. Dark-eyed Junco
  11. Northern Cardinal
  12. Eastern Towhee
  13. Brown Thrasher
  14. Northern Mockingbird
  15. Hermit Thrush
  16. Blue Jay
  17. Eastern Tufted Titmouse
  18. Carolina Chickadee
  19. Carolina Wren
  20. Pine Warbler
  21. Yellow-rumped Warbler
  22. Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  23. Downy Woodpecker
  24. Mourning Dove

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The magical tableau outside our windows made us rub our eyes in near-disbelief, particularly when two surprising species hopped into view on the snow. First was a Savannah Sparrow, Passerculus sandwichensis (above), a bird that superficially resembles a Song Sparrow but lacks the heavy facial markings and longer tail. We had seen this species only once before at Hilton Pond Center: During (you guessed it!) a snowstorm back in January 2011 when we trapped and banded eight of them. This year there was just this one individual, and it wasn't until we processed our images for our write-up we realized the bird in the photo above already had a band on its left leg.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

We eventually caught this solitary Savannah Sparrow (above) and, of course, quickly checked its band number. It turned out to be #1771-77049, indeed one of those eight captures from the January snowstorm four years ago. This species breeds up the Appalachians and across the northern U.S. and most of Canada but only appears in the Piedmont during the cold season. It's quite interesting that this little Savannah Sparrow is among those birds that flies hundreds or thousands of miles and knows just which backyard to visit for food when the snows come.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The other locally uncommon species among those at the Center's feeding stations on 12 February was present in much bigger numbers: A flock of at least 18 Rusty Blackbirds (above) was imaged via our trail cam as they came in for corn. Like other blackbirds, they walk rather than hopping, utilizing a stiff rocking gait that is quite distinctive. RUBL are always a treat to see, if only because the rate of decline in their populations is among the fastest of all North American songbirds; ornithologists estimate a drop of at least 85% in the past 40 years. Rusty Blackbirds breed in the boreal swamps of Canada and overwinter in the southeastern quadrant of the U.S.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

In the hand during winter (above), male Rusty Blackbirds, Euphagus carolinus, look much different from close relatives such as Common Grackles or Red-winged Blackbirds. Instead of being black the mantle of the RUBL is a soft brown, and the face is marked by a black mask and a wide buffy superciliary line. The eye is a pale yellow that stands out against the mask. Come spring males are glossy black all over and females are a dark silvery gray. We had banded only four rusties in all previous years at Hilton Pond Center so were pleased to catch two more during the recent snowstorm.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Recapturing a Savannah Sparrow and banding two Rusty Blackbirds during our recent snow did bring satisfaction, but the really big news came on 13 February when we brought an after-second year American Goldfinch to the banding table. We had been awaiting this particular individual for quite a while, not because it was a goldfinch but because it became the 60,000th bird banded in 32-plus years of work at Hilton Pond Center. Obviously, that's a lot of birds! If you figure about 10,700 days have passed since we began our research at the Center, that averages out to more than 5.6 birds per day--and that doesn't take into account that due to weather, bander health, work assignments, and off-site activities we probably run nets or traps only about half those days. In any case, all that work has produced important scientific data and valuable educational opportunities at what is still the most productive year-round bird banding station in the Carolinas--and one of the most active in the Southeast.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Shortly after dawn on 13 February the trail cam documented what we believe is another unusual occurrence for Hilton Pond Center: Two American Crows, Corvus brachyrhynchos (above) coming down to feed on corn left over from the previous day. Although crows are common locally--we also get Fish Crows, C. ossifragus, during warmer weather--they are exceedingly wary and spend most of their time in the highest treetops. In fact, in 33 years we've never actually seen one come to the feeding station--although they may sneak in early on a regular basis before we set up for morning observations. Having studied Blue Jays during graduate school in Minnesota, we've always wanted to band a closely related crow but the big black corvids are probably too smart to get caught.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

By mid-morning on the 13th precipitation had ceased and the skies cleared to a chilly but sunny day across Hilton Pond (above). In all, the three-day weather event brought nearly eight inches of snow, mixed in with a little sleet and freezing rain. The latter--in conjunction with daytime thawing followed by nocturnal freezing--made a crust on the white stuff so hard that walking on it left no tracks.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Numbers of birds at the feeders and traps declined somewhat on the 13th, so we had a little more time to explore the trails. There we found lots of branches felled by heavy snow, and littering the path were hundreds of prickly one-inch balls with slender stems attached. These were the familiar woody fruits of Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, knocked down by wind and snow. When we allowed the 11 acres that now comprise Hilton Pond Center to succeed from old farm fields to their current status, the first trees to come in were Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana), Winged Elms (Ulmus alata), and Sweetgums. It's understandable the latter are now our most common hardwoods; those prickly balls each contain dozens of tiny hard seeds that seem to be very good at germinating into Sweetgum sprouts. Some of the seeds get eaten--we've seen Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches digging into the fruit while it was still on the tree--but many seeds fall to the substrate where they lie in wait for just the right moisture and temperature. Sweetgum is one prolific tree species.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

One sign of mammalian activity along our trails was the trunk of an Eastern Red Cedar tree (above) whose bark had been shredded. When we monitor the Center's bluebird trail we sometimes open a nest box to find it stuffed with long strings of cedar bark--undoubtedly placed there by cavity-nesting Southern Flying Squirrels. These little nocturnal rodents gather cedar bark as insulation, but the bark also serves another function. Just as humans once store their valuable woolens in cedar chests to deter clothes moths, so does the cedar bark in a flying squirrel's nest help reduce fleas and other ectoparasites. Cedar chests are just another example of humans duplicating something wild creatures were already utilized successfully for millennia.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

With clear skies all day on 13 February, we anticipated the evening would provide an unusual opportunity for South Carolinians--a night walk on a carpet of snow illuminated by the light of a nearly full moon. We weren't disappointed near midnight when we donned warm clothing and ventured outside into the crisp night air without a flashlight. We couldn't differentiate colors but could see every tree in front of us and had no trouble navigating the Center's trails for an hour or so. Unfortunately, the snow was so crunchy from thawing and refreezing we heard no sounds except out own footsteps--wildlife could probably detect us from a mile away--but that didn't detract from the mystical feeling of being out in the woods at night when most of our colleagues were nestled up indoors and oblivious to this uncommon Piedmont spectacle.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

There was still plenty of snow on the ground for Valentines Day (14 February), so we continued to trap and band birds in good numbers. Nothing really unusual occurred that day--at least until just before 10:30 p.m. when the ground at Hilton Pond Center jumped around a little. It seems a minor but noticeable earthquake had struck. The seismograph station at Hawthorne Fire Tower in Aiken SC measured it at a magnitude of 4.1; triangulations from other reporting stations pinpointed the quake at three miles beneath the surface near Edgefield SC--about 92 miles south and west of York and Hilton Pond.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

In full disclosure no one at the Center actually felt the temblor, but lots of other people did--and not just in York. The U.S. Geological Survey Intensity Map (above) plotted public reports via the Internet. It shows folks from the North Carolina-Virginia border south to Savannah and west to the Georgia-Alabama border knew something unusual had happened. Shallow quakes like this one send shock waves across the earth's surface for much greater distances than deeper events that occur down forty miles or more. Again, a 4.1 magnitude earthquake is noticeable and may alarm pets and wildlife, but it's not likely to do any damage to structures.

Yes, the first half of February was filled with natural wonders: Groundhog day, the anniversary of naturalist-clergyman John Bachman's birthday, a junco with aberrational plumage, two significant snowfalls that brought an unusually large and diverse assortment of birds to Hilton Pond Center. There was also that full moon on the snow and signs of flying squirrel activity, along with an alarming but otherwise harmless earthquake almost a hundred miles away. But the two biggest events were both bird related, the first being our banding of our 60,000th bird at the Center--a remarkable milestone if we do say so ourselves.

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

The second big happening this week was the arrival of Billy Hilton III on the morning of 15 February, with granddaughters Hadley Reid Hilton and McKinley Ballard Hilton in tow (below right). Although Hadley is curious at five months she's still a bit young for field work, but three-year-old McKinley literally jumped up at the suggestion she join Pap as he retrieved Chipping Sparrows from ground traps behind the old farmhouse. (Susan "Gram" Hilton used her cell phone camera to capture an image of Pap, a few trapped birds, and McKinley, above.) McKinley was fascinated with the whole process, listening and watching intently as we introduced her to the art and science of banding birds. As we finished with the sparrows, McKinley gently held each one and released it back into the wild as if she'd been doing this for years. Genuine excitement in her eyes and voice were unmistakable, reinforcing our belief that nothing surpasses bird banding as a tool to teach kids of all adults about nature. People often ask us who will continue our long-term banding studies at Hilton Pond Center for the NEXT 60,000 birds. Maybe McKinley--and Hadley--are the ones!

All text, maps, charts & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written and photographed by Dr. Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

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1-15 February 2014

American Goldfinch--205
Chipping Sparrow--83
Dark-eyed Junco--
Pine Warbler--1
Song Sparrow--6
Savannah Sparrow--1
Northern Cardinal--7
White-throated Sparrow--1
Purple Finch--1
House Finch--5
Carolina Wren--2
Brown Thrasher--1
Rusty Blackbird--2 *
Common Grackle--2 *
Blue Jay--3
Mourning Dove--3

* = New banded species for 2014

16 species
332 individuals

19 species (33-yr. avg. = 63.2)

406 individuals
(33-yr. avg. =

(since 28 June 1982, during which time 171 species have been observed on or over the property)
126 species
60,088 individuals
4,837 Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(with original banding date, sex, and current age):
American Goldfinch (5)
02/17/10--after 6th year male
01/05/11--after 5th year female
03/19/13--after 3rd year male
03/23/13--3rd year female
03/26/13--after 3rd year female
03/28/13--3rd year male e

Chipping Sparrow (9)
03/21/09--after 6th year unknown
12/18/10--after 4th year unknown
03/22/13--after 2nd year unknown (two different birds)
03/28/13--after 2nd year unknown
04/06/13--after 2nd year unknown
04/07/13--3rd year unknown
04/08/13--after 2nd year unknown
04/09/13--after 2nd year male

Savannah Sparrow (1)
01/12/11--5th year unknown

Song Sparrow (1)
12/14/11--4th year unknown

Northern Cardinal (1)
09/29/13--2nd year female

House Finch (2)
08/18/10--after 5th year male
06/20/13--2nd year male

--There's nothing like a little snow to bring in the birds at Hilton Pond Center and elevate our banding efforts to more respectable levels. (See tally at left of the 332 birds banded during the period 1-15 Feb.) We might mention 16 species banded during winter is a pretty good number, especially since mist nets were not used and all birds were captured in various kinds of traps baited with corn (whole & cracked), white millet, and/or black sunflower seed.

--We also did fairly well with returns during the period, although most previously banded individuals were sparrows. Of particular interest were two after-6th-year birds, one American Goldfinch and one Chipping Sparrow. The returning 5th-year Savannah Sparrow was also noteworthy--especially since we've banded only eight of them at the Center.

--As of 15 Feb Hilton Pond Center's 2014 Yard List stands at 39--about 23% of the 171 avian species encountered locally since 1982. New birds seen this week (in order of appearance): Purple Finch, Savannah Sparrow, Rusty Blackbird, Killdeer & Fox Sparrow.

--The immediate past installment of "This Week at Hilton Pond" dealt with Night Creatures whose images were captured with a trail cam deployed at one of our bird feedings stations. The write-up is archived and always available on the Center's Web site as Installment #590.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

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Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research, conservation & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Dr. Bill Hilton Jr., aka "The Piedmont Naturalist," it is parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Web site contents--including text and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To request permission for use or for further assistance, please contact Webmaster.